Previous Section Index Home Page

it continues:

So the manifesto commitment on which the motion is based goes considerably further than the motion.

Mr. Andrew Turner: My right hon. Friend may have observed that three of the Members who intervened on the Leader of the House—members of his own party—clearly believed that one of the terms of reference was to discuss what should happen in the future. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth)—who is no longer present—referred to discussing what was acceptable and what was not.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, the implication of the intervention from the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was that, according to his understanding of the Committee’s role, it could go further than the terms set out in the motion. My point is that we have accepted this Committee on the basis of the motion, which sets it a very specific task. I will discuss later some of the problems of codification—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

10 May 2006 : Column 452

Simon Hughes: I do not want there to be any misunderstanding. I am very clear that this Committee will deal simply with stage one, assessment, and stage two, consideration of whether we can codify. Its remit does not extend to thinking about what we do with the Lords after that.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point.

John Bercow: I confess that I disapprove of the whole basis on which Select Committees of this House are currently constituted—a view that I last expressed in the main debate on the composition of Select Committees on 13 July last year. Does my right hon. Friend know on what basis this Committee was constituted and at what point approaches were made? More specifically, did those approached know what the terms of the motion by which they would effectively be bound were to be?

Mrs. May: I am afraid that I am unable to enlighten my hon. Friend on the question of exactly when particular individuals were approached and asked whether they would be prepared to participate in the Committee. My understanding, however, is that when approached, it was made clear to them exactly what the Committee was about and what its job would be. The Government and other parties had discussed the terms of reference before the motion came before the House, so they were known and understood before people were asked to participate in the Committee.

Andrew Miller: Just to put at rest the mind of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I was familiar last week with the broad terms of reference, although not the specific wording. Nothing in the wording gives me cause for concern about my role as I understood it.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining his own experience.

Simon Hughes: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: Yes, and then I will make some progress.

Simon Hughes: I am simply trying to assist the debate. There was much discussion of this issue after the general election, but no agreement was reached. I do not think that the wording was shown to anybody in the Opposition parties until a couple of weeks ago—before this matter was first debated in the House of Lords.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.

I want to move beyond the wording of the motion and on to the issues that lie behind this project, the first of which is the problem of definition and codification. There is a danger that codification could remove the flexible relationship between the two Houses that enables better governance. Indeed, in some cases, such a relationship enables the Government to pass business that would be difficult to get through if the codification was as suggested in the Labour party manifesto.

10 May 2006 : Column 453

Let us consider the example of the planning and compulsory purchase legislation that, at one stage, the Government were on the verge of losing because of the incompetence of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Agreements were reached in the House of Lords on progressing that legislation in such a way as to ensure its enactment. If the rules had been absolute, that would not have been possible, which is one reason why I said earlier to the hon. Member for Rhondda that it is very difficult to codify, while at the same time providing the necessary flexibility in the relationship between the two Houses, in the interest of getting legislation through Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made several good points with great passion, as he always does, especially on issues relating to the constitution and Parliament. He talked about the problem of defining manifesto commitments, and he was right. It is one of the greatest problems that the Committee will face when considering the Salisbury-Addison convention. One example is the recent debate on the Identity Cards Act 2006, in which the Labour party’s commitment to voluntary identity cards was challenged by the Opposition, because we believed that the manner in which they would be introduced effectively meant that they would be compulsory—because of the increasing requirement to hold a passport. If an identity card becomes automatic on having a passport, holding the identity card effectively becomes compulsory. That was a debate on the definitions of voluntary and compulsory in this House, and it shows how difficult it will be to define manifesto commitments, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made clear by quoting his party’s manifesto. Manifestos are often drawn very wide, so it is difficult for anyone to say exactly what was meant in terms of legislation. The danger is that codification will mean that decisions as to what such manifesto commitments mean are not taken by elected representatives in this House, but are left to lawyers, who will have to find a way through the problems caused by trying to codify the conventions. The Committee will face real difficulties in attempting such codification.

Why has this issue come up now, juxtaposed as it is with the whole question of House of Lords reform, including the intervention by Lord Falconer? The problem is that it is a circular argument. The hon. Member for Rhondda said that form should follow function, but the problem is that function may be determined by form in relation to the House of Lords. The functions that one would anticipate an elected House undertaking would be very different from the sort of functions that one would anticipate an unelected House undertaking. Therefore, if one identified the function and then fitted the form to it, the function might change once the form had been decided. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will say that one has to break the circular argument at some point, but in this instance the function of the House of Lords will be determined by the form of the House of Lords.

Chris Bryant: Surely the point is that this is about the very important matter of how power is distributed within government in Britain. The only way to get the
10 May 2006 : Column 454
architecture right is by deciding what function Britain needs the House of Lords to perform, to add to the functions of this House, in terms of scrutinising legislation and the Executive. One has to start with function, not form.

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman has just made my point very well for me.

I raised the issue of timing, as have other hon. Members, and some of them may be concerned at the impact that the Committee will have on the debate about House of Lords reform—whether it will speed that up. In fact, it may be a way for the Government to kick House of Lords reform further into the long grass—despite the comments by the Lord Chancellor—by saying that it cannot take place until the Committee has met, deliberated and reported. Indeed, there was a slight hint of that in one or two of the comments by the Leader of the House, when he referred to the need to set out the conventions before considering reform.

A number of questions arise and I hope that the Leader of the House will answer them when he winds up. How will Lord Falconer’s proposal for talks on House of Lords reform relate to the work of the Joint Committee? Will nothing happen until the Committee has reported, and who will Chair the relevant Cabinet Committees?

Mr. Straw: Moi.

Mrs. May: The right hon. Gentleman uses a foreign word in a way that I thought was not permitted in this Chamber, but he confirms that he will chair those Committees.

The question about the timetable was raised, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making it clear that, if more time is needed, he will be prepared to come to the House to seek an extension.

Mr. Bone: The motion specifies a date of 21 July for the Committee to report. If it is discussed on the Monday of the following week, 76 days will have passed before the House can scrutinise it. Does my hon. Friend agree that this matter is being rushed through?

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is well known for his concern about the fact that the House does not sit in the summer recess. His point about timing is valid. One concern is that the Committee will not have enough time to deliberate properly, and another is that, even if the deliberations are rushed through to meet the 21 July deadline, neither House will be able to consider them until the autumn.

Lady Amos told the House of Lords that it will be up to the Committee, when it has met and decided what it will look at, to come back to both Houses and seek an extension if it thinks that the time scale is too short. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the motion does not mean that the 21 July report cannot be an interim report? If that is so, the Committee could report on that date, which might not be the end of its deliberations.

10 May 2006 : Column 455

We supported the establishment of this Committee because it was a Government manifesto commitment. It will look at the practicality of codifying the conventions, and will not try to amend them or reduce the power of the House of Lords. However, I hope that the Leader of the House will answer one final question. If the Committee decides that it is not practical to codify the conventions and does not produce recommendations for improving the present arrangements, will the Government undertake not to produce a unilateral Bill constraining the powers of the Lords? That might achieve the same end by another means, but it would lead to confrontation with the House of Lords and with some Members of this House.

As I have said, we do not want the power of the House of Lords to be reduced, and we do not want the Committee to be a back-door route to that end. I trust that the Leader of the House will confirm that is not the Government’s intention either.

8.13 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): If I had been presented with this proposition a year or two ago, I would have opposed it instinctively. I would have made a speech saying that it was inconceivable that the conventional arrangements of the two Houses could be considered without looking at the larger context of what should be done about the Houses’ broader composition and relationship.

Mr. Shepherd: That would have been an excellent speech.

Dr. Wright: It would, and probably even better than the short one that I am about to deliver, but things have changed. I hope that the House agrees with me that we must not repeat statements in respect of House of Lords reform that have already been repeated endlessly. On these occasions, we tend to make the same type of speech, saying the same type of thing, putting forward our favourite nostrums on reform, with the effect that we never achieve reform of any kind.

Mr. MacNeil: I was a member of the public when the House last debated this subject, but there seems to be a degree of myopia. This Parliament is not the only bicameral Parliament in the world. Rather than reinvent the wheel or tie ourselves up in endless detail, would not it be better to look at best practice throughout the world and learn from it?

Dr. Wright: We should certainly look at best practice throughout the world, while bearing in mind our distinctive history and the distinctive nature of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive in this country.

I do not want to make the speech that I have made many times before, and I do not want to hear other Members make the same speeches that they have made many times before, which makes me well disposed towards any initiative that will move things on. One initiative could be to establish what the current conventions are, for reasons that the Leader of the House has given, although as I pointed out, the picture is changing.

10 May 2006 : Column 456

The current conventions—at least, the central one: the Salisbury-Addison convention—were forged during the post-war Labour Government, who had a huge popular majority while the Conservative party had a huge entrenched majority in the House of Lords, based on the hereditary peerage. We have only to remember that context to realise that simply to codify those conventions now would not tell us much about the relationship that should exist between the two Houses in very altered circumstances.

There are difficulties about the practicality of carrying out the exercise, even though it would be extremely useful to have it done. That is a conundrum that the Committee will have to face. It is clear to me what the conventions ought to be, so perhaps I can save the Committee a little time, if it considers my suggestion practicable.

In essence, there are three conventions. The first is that this House should, in the last resort, get its way. The second is that the Government should be entitled to get their business in reasonable time. The third is that the House of Lords should have proper opportunity to perform its function of scrutiny and revision. That is what governs the relationship between the two Houses, and it does so from the perspective that there is no rivalry between the two Chambers; the task is to make the Chambers work in a complementary fashion to make Parliament itself more effective.

People talk constantly about the primacy of the Commons; in fact, it is Parliament that is sovereign. We have to strengthen and emphasise the sovereignty of Parliament. That is the real challenge that faces us.

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but he is slightly wrong. One of the elements in the primacy of this place is that Finance Bills can be considered only here, which is important. Secondly, the Government can be formed only by virtue of a majority in this Chamber. No matter how many times another Chamber might choose to have a vote of confidence, it would never be able to dislodge the Government. That is the essence of the primacy of this Chamber.

Dr. Wright: I give way to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—my neighbour and good friend—is right to remind us about the supremacy or the primacy of Parliament, but people such as me believe that that is so only because it is an expression of the sovereignty of the people. If the other Chamber is elected, it will be accountable and it, too, will be an expression of the people’s view. Primacy between Chambers is a matter of negotiation between two legitimate bodies. I start from that constitutional principle, which is clearly at odds with the hon. Gentleman’s constitutional principle.

Dr. Wright: Of course, the point about constitutional principles is that they are endlessly at issue with one another. The point that I want to make is that there is a reputable case for doing almost anything about the House of Lords. There is a reputable case for electing
10 May 2006 : Column 457
it, for electing it indirectly, for appointing it or for leaving it is its semi-reformed state. What there is not a reputable case for is not having the intellectual and political energy to think what its role might be in a strengthened Parliament and then to ensure that it performs that role.

We are having this discussion at a time when the relationship between the two Houses is changing quite rapidly. I suspect that there are different agendas at work. I can quite understand why a Government might feel that they would like a second chamber that is rather more pliant than the current one. I suspect that they may want—it is a perfectly proper thing for a Government to want—to find a way to codify conventions that will enable them to get their business more conveniently.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has opened up the whole debate about the future of the second chamber. Many people will disagree with him on many of the obvious distinctions between the two Houses. Even if we retain the view recently expressed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that only this House can determine whether the Government stay in office and vote them out or keep them in, it does not mean to say that the other place, in whatever new form, cannot have pretty strong legislative powers and, if elected, arguably similar legislative powers to those of this Chamber.

Dr. Wright: It is possible to emphasise the final primacy of this House, while recognising that the other House has a crucial complementary role in strengthening scrutiny function as a whole in relation to the Executive. I fear that many of the arguments that we have heard have suggested that there is zero-sum game at work, but there is not. I hope that one of the consequences of re-entering the argument will be to see it in a rather more useful way than we have sometimes seen it in the recent past.

John Bercow: There is often an underlying assumption in these debates that a legislative stalemate between the two Houses is necessarily a bad thing, to be avoided if at all possible, whereas I believe that, in many situations, it is a positive good to be celebrated. May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, in referring as he did to functions of scrutiny and review but with assumption of primacy for this Chamber in the end, it is important not to exclude the importance of delay as a positive good, not to avoid an ultimate decision, but precisely to slow up the process for further such review and scrutiny?

Dr. Wright: I agree very much with that, and I want to draw the House’s attention to some work that has just been done on the current activity of the House of Lords. We talk about it a rather general way. Some very interesting work has just been done by the constitution unit at University college on exactly what the House of Lords did during 2005. I shall read out the unit’s conclusion. It has gone through every Division and every aspect of the relationship between the two Houses, and it says:

10 May 2006 : Column 458

Next Section Index Home Page